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RECONSTRUCTION

Socialism Lives!

Bush describes a utopia of nationalized oil and universal health care. But only for Iraq.

May 11, 2003|Barbara Ehrenreich | Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America."

KEY WEST, Fla. — With Washington fixated on the looming war between the departments of State and Defense, almost no one has noticed an even stranger development within the Bush administration -- its sudden, and apparently wholehearted, embrace of socialism.

Echoing sentiments expressed in an earlier era by Eugene V. Debs and Woody Guthrie, Colin Powell declared recently, "Iraq's oil belongs to the Iraqi people." There's been no comment yet from Exxon Mobil on the possible application of this principle to the homeland, but Powell's words seemed sincere -- unlike those other feel-good phrases the right's always tossing off, like "compassionate conservatism" and "free elections."

In fact, the conservative press is filled with ideas for how to distribute the wealth to the people and keep it out of the hands of "Iraqi elites."

In addition to spreading the oil wealth around, the Bush administration has committed itself to generous public services -- though only, so far, in Iraq. Schools will be repaired, damaged infrastructure rebuilt and education made available even to the poorest. There will be quality health care for all. Imagine: A universal health program, of the kind that has eluded Americans for at least half a century, will be created with a snap of the imperial fingers in Iraq.

Did I say socialism? Make that democratic socialism, verging on utopian anarchism. In President Bush's vision of the ideal state, there will be perfect democracy combined with a sweetly forgiving attitude toward wrongdoers. Already, Iraqis are free to demonstrate by the thousands, shouting, "Americans get out!" and even ruder things. Commenting on the looting that swept Baghdad in the first days of that city's invasion by U.S. troops, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stated (defense lawyers please take note): "It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

That's not, I suspect, what Rumsfeld was saying after the rioting that followed the Rodney King decision.

What came over the Bush administration, which has in this country engaged in a relentless campaign to limit civil liberties and eliminate the last shreds of the welfare state? Is it possible that military triumph -- no matter how inevitable given the weakness of the enemy -- has melted their hard little hearts? Those who study domestic violence say that a wife abuser is likely to display uncommon warmth and affection just after administering a hearty beating. So too, perhaps, our leaders who, having briefly sated their aggressions during "shock and awe," are now filled with the milk of human kindness.

Actually, someone has noticed the administration's swerve to the left: the sharp-eyed Maxine Waters. A Los Angeles Times column reports: "Much to her surprise, the federal government is promising to do everything Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters has spent years fighting for.... [she] just never figured the beneficiaries would be residents of Iraq." She is quoted as saying, "It's terribly arrogant and overly ambitious for this president to think he can invade that country, turn it into a democracy, and use American taxpayer dollars to build an infrastructure that still is not built in some parts of this nation."

But watch what you wish for, Rep. Waters. Are you prepared to have South Los Angeles pulverized by weeks of bombing in order to generate the kind of warm feelings now being directed toward Iraq?

In the annals of armed conflict, there has never been an outcome quite like this, where the victors coddle the defeated enemy while visiting misery on their own people. If the rebuilding of Iraq goes as currently planned, the Iraqis will be enjoying their universal health care system just as Medicaid gets savaged at home. They will be counting up their personal oil profits while Americans face deep cuts in programs such as temporary assistance to needy families, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and education at all levels. Iraqis will be free to practice democracy in its untidiest forms, while Americans can be spied on and incarcerated without charges under Patriot Acts I and II.

As for the troops we were all vigorously enjoined to "support" with our flags and yellow ribbons -- they will come home to find their veterans' benefits cut by an estimated $15 billion over the next 10 years. American veterans' hospitals, which already resemble the looted hospitals of downtown Baghdad, will soon have fewer amenities to offer than morgues.

It would be churlish to begrudge the Iraqis -- who have, after all, endured Saddam Hussein, more than a decade of sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom -- any crumbs of comfort and liberty. But if Bush's vision of the ideal polity is represented by his plans for Iraq, why can't we have just a little taste of that here?

There is a solution, and I do not mean the tedious, exasperating work of building a mass movement for social justice in the homeland. No, it's far simpler than that: The solution is mass emigration to Iraq.

There's plenty of available housing in Iraq, though mostly of the "handyman's special" variety, thanks to the unfortunate side effects of the liberation process. Power and water will soon be flowing, probably a lot more cheaply than they do here, and there are exciting opportunities for people in the de-mining business and for the purveyors of artificial limbs. Not to mention that you will never have to worry about health insurance again.

It's still a challenge to get a visa, of course, because of the defunct condition of the Iraqi Embassy, but a nice letter to Jay Garner or his new boss, L. Paul Bremer III, may do the trick.

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